Dialing for Democracy

I’ve had over 700 conversations with voters over the last month while phone banking for Progressive Project Turnout. That’s about 699 more than I thought I would have when my team was pulled out of the field in early August because of COVID-19 and transitioned from door knocking to phone calling. I mean who answers a number they don’t recognize these days? Well, as it turns out, a pandemic is a damn good time to call people. They’re at home and a lot of them are bored silly and talking to a friendly stranger like me is a nice diversion.

Now, not to paint too rosy of a picture, I’ve probably had twice that number of hang-ups, but I expected that. And then there are the Trumpers, but I’ll save that for later. For the most part, I’ve been deeply moved, honored – and often amused – listening to voters’ thoughts about this election. And best of all, I am very hopeful about November 3rd. No, really, I am. Joe Biden might not have been a lot of folks first choice, but today he is a LOT of folks only choice. Whatever gets us there.

Joe Biden. I say his name a hundred times of day – think Rain Man and substitute Joe Biden for Judge Wapner – that’s me. I recite parts of the script in my dreams sometimes. My dear wife can even do an amusing impersonation of me since she’s heard me on duty from my home office. Besides politely thanking the Trump voters for their time (grr), making the script sound fresh each time is the most challenging aspect of the gig. By the end of my shift, I’m exhausted from the sound of my own voice, but I go to bed hopeful that our democracy will prevail.

We follow a brief script – I identify myself and who I am representing and slide into the main question – “Do you plan on voting for Joe Biden on November 3rd?” And that’s when things get interesting. The good – yes – the bad – no – and the ugly – Trumpers who yell at me. There’s a half a second of suspense after the question exits my mouth and hangs there as I wait for the answer. I can almost predict the answer by the sound of someone’s voice, but that’s not foolproof. One of my early calls was to crusty old woman in rural Pennsylvania. I popped the question and there was an awkward pause and she said in a very bold voice, “I…most…certainly… (here it comes, I thought) AM!” She proceeded to tell me that the only monument that Trump’s head should be on is a statue of Larry, Curly and Moe. Lesson learned – you can’t always judge a voter by their address. See 2016.

Our call list is weighted to registered Democrats, but no data is perfect. Almost all the Dems are happy to speak with me – like hearing from an old friend. Here are just a few of my favorite answers to the first question.

  1. I would crawl over broken glass to vote for Joe Biden.
  2. FUCK YEAH! Like my very life depends on it. (I really liked that woman.)
  3. I would vote for a bag of rotten vegetables over Donald Trump.

We then ask if people plan on voting by mail or in person and this has been a disgusting indictment (there will be many more) of Donald Trump’s assault on mail-in voting. People don’t trust the United States Postal System. I spoke to a woman in Warren, MI who told me, “I work for the post office and no way am I mailing my ballot in.” And I talked to a 36-year retiree of the post office in Raleigh who lamented that she can’t trust the mail because of Trump. She said, “I’ve got a mask, a shield and some gloves – I’m voting in person.”

That said – a LOT of people are voting by mail – and many are delivering their ballots in person to a drop-box or their local Board of Elections. But the most encouraging takeaway from this question is that so many people have a plan for voting – they’ve thought it through in advance because they want to protect themselves and their vote. Americans are afraid their vote will not be counted. So much winning.

The last question I ask folks is the one that has evoked answers that have sometimes moved me to tears. What would you say is the primary issue that concerns you the most in the upcoming election? The number one answer by far is getting rid of Donald Trump. Here are just a few of the most memorable responses.

  • Donald Trump is a doofus and a danger to the whole world.
  • You don’t let someone in your house who will hurt you. He’s in our house.
  • Stopping the descent into Fascism.
  • He’s not even human. (Fascinating new birther conspiracy!)

This is where I often find myself in surprisingly deep conversations with some voters as they share their despair for the state of our union and their hopes for the future. A woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania said, “Oh, now you’re going to make me cry. I pray for the welfare of our nation and the heart of our country. My husband and I are voting by mail and going fishing on election day. We’ll fish and pray all day that we’ll get our country back.” Gulp. Many people tell me that they fear for the future of our democracy if Biden is not elected. One man called the last four years “the vandalism of our democracy.” These people aren’t all yellow dog Democrats like me. Some of them tell me that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, but they will vote for Biden. A few even confess that they are Republicans, but they can’t support Trump. It is no small thing to hear a stranger tell you how much they love our country.

We’ve been calling into battleground states except for two days of calling into Kentucky. Wow. I can’t imagine anything lonelier than being a Democrat in Kentucky. Our time calling there was as a longshot that Mitch McConnell might be defeated. Not to be a buzzkill, but we can call that race right now. The Kentucky Dems were so happy to hear from a kindred soul that it was sometimes hard to get them off the phone. It was a little heartbreaking. I felt like I was leaving behind those sweet residents of The Island of Misfit Toys. I promised them that Joe Biden would come back for them.

The other primary concern on most voters’ minds is COVID-19. I spoke with an essential worker in PA who just returned to work after being out for almost four months recovering from COVID. She is what we call a highly motivated voter. People know that this pandemic is far from over and they want to put an adult in charge. I’ve heard touching stories from older people who haven’t seen their grandchildren in six months. I can hear the weariness in their voices. I probably stay on those calls longer than I should.

I learned quickly that each state has its own personality. Maine and New Hampshire don’t suffer fools or unknown callers gladly. I got a lot of, “It’s none of your damn business who I’m voting for.” Yep. Live free or die. Both of those states are looking good for Joe, but Susan Collins’ karma ticket is about to be punched. I imagine she is deeply troubled. On the bright side, she’ll have more time for brewskies with Brett Kavanaugh. What? I LIKE BEER.

And now for the Trumpers. I’ll give them this – they are faithful parrots of their fearful leader. I’ve heard things like Joe Biden is a pedophile and Kamala Harris is a Muslim. That’s when my superpower of lip biting comes in handy. My absolute favorite response/insult from a Trump voter came from a young, white man (surprise!) in rural North Carolina. He said/yelled at me, “I DON’T VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS. CNN IS BULLSHIT. FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.” I desperately wanted to respond, “So, that’s a hard no on Joe?” Honestly, the Trumpers inspire me because they are a visceral reminder of how toxic Trump’s presidency has been for our country.

Sometimes I have a hard time falling asleep after my shift. There are always a few conversations that I replay and can’t quite let go of – like the young black woman in Detroit. When I asked her what her primary concern was in this election she sighed – a heavy sigh much older than her years – as I waited for her answer. She said in a flat emotionless voice, “I’m a black person, so who I vote for doesn’t really matter because nothing ever changes for us. I hope things will get better this time, but we’ll see.” Damn. I doubt I’ll ever let go of that conversation.

I’ve been surprised and deeply touched by the voters who have thanked me for what I am doing. Hearing a “Take care, girl” at the end of a call can really lift your spirits. The truth is that I love my job. Every day feels important – like when I talked a 93-year-old disabled woman through the process of requesting an absentee ballot. Dear Lord, I hope she mails it in early.

The bad news is that I’ll get the pink slip on November 3rd. The good news is that Donald Trump will, too.

Go to VotingMatters.org/NC to update your registration, request a mail-in ballot, or find your voting location.

Wed locks

We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves during this pandemic. Some of these things have come as a big surprise to me. For starters, I haven’t missed live sports at all. And I love sports. They just don’t seem all that important to me anymore. Well, at least not as important as almost 130,000 Americans dead from COVID-19.

Now don’t think I’m pining for sainthood or anything. There are some things I do terribly miss – like the movies – and I knew from day one of lockdown that the cinema would be high on my Most Missed List – right up there with haircuts. But guess what? I don’t miss them either. Now to be clear, I do miss my hairdresser, Kelly. I’ve been with her for almost 15 years and she is one of my favorite humans on earth. We talk about everything from Jesus – we are both big fans – to brow lifts – I’m on the fence. I adore her.

So, I thought for sure that once restrictions were lifted, I would be the first one dragging my raggedy roots back into the salon. My last appointment with Kelly was on February 25th – ten days before I was to leave on a long-planned trip to the Holy Land with my dear wife and several friends. Yeah, well, you know how that worked out – just one of a bazillion Corona cancellations. All of this is to say that I headed into quarantine with a nice fresh cut and color. I was Zoom ready. Well, at least from the neck up.

I will confess to an unhealthy amount of vanity when it comes to my hair. I blame my father – Daddy with the good hair. He had a head of thick black hair and it remained that way until the day he died at 79. Friends would tease him about coloring it, but he never did. He always laughed and said they were just jealous. I am lucky that I got his hair – and to be honest, it is one of the few aspects of my self-image that I’ve never felt bad about. I love my hair and God knows I’ve invested a lot in it over the years – and I have the products to prove it.

Funny story. My wife and I had not been dating long when one afternoon she told me she was going to get a haircut. I asked her what time her appointment was, and she said, “Oh, I go to Great Clips – you just walk in.” I was grateful we were speaking on the phone and she couldn’t see the color drain from my face. She might as well have told me she was going to Starbucks for a kidney transplant. I was shocked and for a moment I questioned the future of our relationship – then I reminded myself that she has pretty hair and I did a quick ballpark accounting of the amount of money I would save in a year if I went to Great Clips. I’m not great at math but that trip to Machu Picchu would have been nice.

My hair grows very quickly and my wife has often trimmed it a bit between appointments for the past few years. I even ordered her nice scissors from Amazon – an upgrade from the dull drugstore pair she was using.

I guess I should tell you that my wife is a psychotherapist by trade – she just happens to have mad skills with scissors. Friends have joked that her salon would be called Hairapy. She giggles and thinks that it might be a nice career change with a lot less paperwork.

Anyway, as this pandemic wore on – and on – she started cutting my hair and these times have been some of our loveliest moments in lockdown. There is something very intimate about having your hair cut by your person – the one you love and share your life with. I think it is a bit like a trust fall – with a slightly less chance of injury.

My wife cuts with confidence so I’m never the least bit nervous. And she is quite conscientious about the whole thing so there’s not much talking except when she tells me to be still. I am pretty sure I am smiling the whole time because I feel so safe and cared for. These quiet times have been a sweet and gentle bubble during these anxious months. No one is in a hurry and it’s just us and some trees and a few birds. It is a very Zen salon even if the amenities are lacking – you must sweep up after your cut and there’s no cucumber water. But I’m not complaining – I know I’m lucky. Not everyone has access to a live-in Edward Scissorhands and I never take that for granted.

I have colored my hair since the first Bush administration. It was a pretty auburn color when I was younger but gradually faded to a dull brown over the years. I went through a blonde highlight phase in the ‘90s – hey, everybody was doing it – and I never even considered not coloring it. I thought for sure that I would be the old gray mare by month two of lockdown but somehow, I’m not. I’m not ready to commit to a colorless future, but for now – it feels easy – and so few things feel easy these days.

Kelly texted me about making an appointment just before North Carolina moved into Phase 2 and salons were preparing to open with new guidelines. I have no doubt that her salon is doing a good job of protecting clients and staff, but I am not ready to go back. My wife has chronic asthma and has not been in any public spaces – except her office – since the beginning of the pandemic and I don’t see any reason to take any unnecessary chances when it comes to this wicked virus.

That all probably makes me sound more thoughtful than I really am, and it is a little disingenuous. The truth is that I’m not ready to give up my deck cuts. You see, I have a big crush on the social worker with the scissors. Oh, and those brochures on Machu Picchu just arrived in the mail. Adios!

Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.

Do not adjust your set

The second week of quarantine in early March, two years, um, months ago, the sound on the television in our living room went out. The picture was fine – just no sound. Now let me preface this story with the humbling confession that my dear wife and I are woefully inept when it comes to any repairs of a technical nature. In short, there will be cussing (mine) and there might be tears (both).

So, I made the dreaded call to Spectrum and went through the automated menu to learn that there were no outages reported in my area. Thanks. Then I held and held and held to talk to a human who walked me through refreshing (stupid word for unplugging everything) my TV. Yep, still no sound. The same thing happened a few months ago and we were told it was probably a bad cable and we should use another cable outlet for the audio. Somehow, we managed to do this, and sound was restored.

No such luck on this Sunday morning. I had purchased a new cable cord to have on hand for such a situation, so we entered the Black Hole of Cords behind the television set. Of course, there’s only room for a small child (and lots of dust) behind there, so that only adds to the frustration. We tried what felt like 101 variations of plugging things in to no avail. And then we did what so many good people who had gone before us have done – we gave up. Yep. We made a conscious decision that our marriage was more important than the sound on our TV and I feel pretty good about that.

Full disclosure – this situation was not as dire as it might have been. The sound on our Roku worked just fine so our streaming lives were saved. We hardly ever watch anything on regular TV anyway – except sports (me) and MSNBC (me). My wife enjoys some HGTV when she has a rare break from her live-in program director (me).

So, we really haven’t been all that inconvenienced by no sound on our TV and in the case of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force briefings, it has been a true blessing. I started “watching” them on Twitter so I would not miss anything important like what a great job he is doing and where to insert my glow stick if I begin to feel ill.

And just the other day, I realized that a television with no sound is the perfect metaphor for this pandemic. We can see, but we really have no idea what is going on. And we can try and change the channel, but the result is still the same – nothing. Most of us are sitting at home anxiously waiting to hear what the new not normal normal will be. We see talking heads and fancy graphs, but we aren’t hearing what we long to hear… “It’s going to be okay.“

Crickets.

So, we return to the Neverland of Netflix where people are still going out to dinner and hugging their friends and getting on airplanes to go to beautiful places.

Damn. We may never get that TV fixed.

Gate change

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy, because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.”

~ John Patrick Shanley

Maybe that is why we are all so tired these days. Blame it on doubt. I usually blame it on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – and you can certainly connect the dots on that one, but I’m doubling down on doubt today. We are living in a constant state of uncertainty and it is absolutely exhausting.

Some days I feel like I’m on a moving walkway at an airport. You remember airports, don’t you? Anyway, I have my suitcase and I am making my way to my gate – only I don’t know where my gate is. In fact, I have no idea where I am going. I don’t even have a ticket, but it doesn’t really matter because the walkway never ends. It just keeps moving forward into the unknown.

This is life in a global pandemic. A one-way ticket to uncertainty. Who the hell knows what to pack? Besides lots of snacks, of course. No kidding, this is hard and the reality of it sent me into the dark hole of despair this week.

I have written before about my superpowers of denial, but they dissolved this week. I’m sure it was the cumulative effect of everything most of us are dealing with – fears about our health and our loved ones, fears about security, fears about what the future will look like when the gates open again.

Putting the COVID-19 smorgasbord of anxiety aside, there were two things that happened this week that made me feel the brutal reality of this pandemic in my gut. The first, innocently enough, was a virtual vestry meeting after a Zoom worship service on Sunday. In the Episcopal church, my church, the vestry is like a board of directors – conducting parochial business. We normally meet once a month, but since the quarantine in early March, we have been connecting weekly.

We divided up the church directory and each vestry member has been responsible for checking in on parishioners. Each week we spend the top of our meeting with updates and last Sunday, our rector told us that she had heard from some older members of our parish that they won’t be returning to the physical church until there is a vaccine. Lysol and grow lights aside, the most optimistic projections for a vaccine are a year or more away. Believe me, I want these dear wise owls at my church to stay home and safe, but I just can’t imagine not seeing them in person for that long. Damn you, reality.

The other event that leveled me was more of a Six Degrees of COVID-19. My sister, who manages some oncology clinics in East Bay, CA, had to inform her staff of a 20% pay cut. The freeze on elective surgeries during this pandemic has left medical providers reeling from a revenue perspective. She also had to lay off some temporary staff, including a cheerful young man who has been living in his car. Cue gut punch.

My sister had told me about this man weeks ago – how earnest and kind he was and how much he appreciated his job. He worked at the front desk and greeted everyone enthusiastically. He had shared his housing situation with my sister and she and her assistant were able to discreetly help him with some new clothing and toiletries. She dreaded giving him the news earlier this week and when I talked to her that evening, I asked her how it went. She said the young man said, “Thank you for this opportunity. I’ve learned so much.” True story.

I got off the phone with my sister and sat down in the chair in my office in the dark and I wept for a young man I will never meet. To be honest, I also wept for my denial. It was shattered, crumbling like a piece of fine crystal being tapped with a hammer. It was my pandemic tipping point.

There is no denying the uncertainty in which we are all living. 50,000 dead and counting as I write this. A friend shared the tweet below with me and it made me feel better – to know that someone else was feeling this way.

I imagine a lot of people are feeling this way and you know what? It is okay to feel that way – any way you are feeling about all of this. Anxiety, fear, grief, anger – we need to feel it. One of the truest things I ever read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking – her stunningly raw account of her husband’s sudden death and how she navigated that first horrible year without him. She writes that “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” That, my friends, is as real as it gets.

I have been grieving the things I miss in this beautifully broken world and I am grieving the loss of certainty. The late Jane Kenyon is one of my favorite poets and I have found myself returning to her words again over the past several weeks. Her poem Otherwise is an achingly lyrical appreciation for the here and now and a haunting lamentation on uncertainty. I’ve been reading it a lot on the walkway. Hang on to your boarding pass and your humanity, folks. This could be a long one.

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day

But one day, I know

it will be otherwise.